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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

HUMBOLDT BAY NWR: Restoring Salmon Creek on the Humboldt Bay NWR

Region 8, December 13, 2011
Salmon Creek with logs in place to provide fish habitat
Salmon Creek with logs in place to provide fish habitat - Photo Credit: n/a
New state of the art tide gate
New state of the art tide gate - Photo Credit: n/a
Salmon Creek channel excavation
Salmon Creek channel excavation - Photo Credit: n/a

By Pam Bierce, External Affairs, Region 8

After a decade of work, the completion of a multi-phase project to restore a degraded stream on former ranch land to quality habitat for salmon and other wildlife was celebrated October 26, at Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge(NWR). Refuge staff and partner agencies and groups gathered to the recently concluded project, which has been at the top of the refuge’s “to-do” list since 1989, when the former ranchlands became part of the refuge.

In 1989, the Service bought the former ranchlands and it became the Salmon Creek Unit of the refuge. Salmon Creek had been channelized and ditched and had little value as habitat for fish or other wildlife. In addition to agricultural uses, lower Salmon Creek suffered from sediment from the upper watershed, which had been impacted by logging, rural development and livestock management.

Humboldt Bay NWR is located at the south end of Humboldt Bay, approximately 9 miles south of Eureka, California. The refuge is on an estuary where fresh water rivers and streams meet the Pacific Ocean. The bay historically sustained over 9,000 acres of salt marsh. Over the past 120 years, large expanses of salt marsh were diked and drained to create pastures for farms and livestock. Today, only about 900 acres of salt marsh remain.

Mitch Faro, the project manager for the Pacific Coast Fish, Wildlife & Wetlands Restoration Association (PCFWWRA), said that during the late 1990s his organization began looking at ways to decrease erosion in the upper watershed of Salmon Creek. The Headwaters Wilderness Preserve was created to manage habitat restoration and conservation, which would reduce the amount of sediment traveling into the lower Salmon Creek.

Faro said that while working on the upper watershed issues, it became apparent that the lower watershed was severely affected by erosion and sediment. In 2001, PCFWWRA submitted a proposal to California Department of Fish and Game, to examine existing conditions and identify restoration options and priorities for Salmon Creek.

So began the decade of work on the Salmon Creek restoration project, with managers from Humboldt Bay NWR and PCFWWRA prioritizing the different phases of the project. “The tide gates were clearly the first priority,” said Faro. “There were fish passage issues, water circulation, and sediment routing. Once we were well on the way with those projects, the next one was to get Salmon Creek out of the ditch that it had been essentially placed in.” The final phase began during spring 2011.

Restoring Salmon Creek to valuable habitat was not without challenges, which were resolved through the collaborative effort and determination of the many partners involved with the project. Mike Love, the project design engineer, said that each phase had design, regulatory and funding challenges to overcome. “These projects do take a long time, even though I never envisioned it taking 10 years. Stick with it and keep working as a team and you’ll make it to the end,” said Love. As the project engineer, he developed the restoration plan and designed the muted tide gates, slough channels, saltmarsh reconstruction, and off-channel ponds.

Eric Nelson, project leader at Humboldt Bay NWR, agreed that the restoration of Salmon Creek has been a long process, but restoring the creek to its historical channel will benefit the refuge on many levels. By replacing an existing tide gate and installing a second, state of the art tide gate, the structures will improve fish passage and allow a muted tidal system to develop. The excavation of the creek channel, the large wood structures placed in the channel and the off-channel rearing ponds will improve habitat for salmon and other fish species. The excavated material from the new creek channel was taken to an existing tide flat on the refuge, raising the level to create a saltmarsh.

“It took a lot of people, and a lot of help. We appreciate everyone’s help,” Nelson said at the partner’s appreciation celebration hosted by the refuge. Now, Salmon Creek is going to repopulate and be good quality habitat and continue to evolve into better habitat for salmon, tidewater gobies and other estuarine dependent species.

Contact Info: Pam Bierce, 916-414-6542, pamela_bierce@fws.gov